The Evolution of Robot Panic

combined pic ogil nav barThe strange campaign to halt robotics and computer research has undergone something of an evolution since its previous few years of crazed sky-is-falling advocacy about automation and imagery sensors failed to get any traction among the world’s decision-making bodies. While their first round of imagery was dominated by an inexplicable obsession with a singular science fiction franchise, the debate over “robot arms control” has become obsessed with a new totem: the Cold War.

In a series of blogposts and articles being coordinated by groups like the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) in preparation of an April 11 meeting of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, you can see ostensible scholars comparing the use of drones to horrifying old school wars of attrition (broadly & vaguely defined), and old theoretical arguments about stability. While the arguments are a bit more sophisticated than they were in 2013, when there was a brief flirtation with comparing small aircraft carrying a few missiles to nuclear weapons, the reality is that the latest round of moral panic about technology in warfare is a century old. The targets of panic change, but the fundamental argument remains the same.

Let’s take a step back to the 1980s, when modern militaries began to employ precision-strike capabilities in a widespread manner. This was when scientists first began to realize the potential of a fully-automated battlefield, and there, too, the same complaints were employed: precision weaponry makes war too easy, it distances decision-makers from the visceral horror of warfare, it destabilizes the international order, it makes war into videogame.

Few ever noticed that none of these dire predictions actually came true: precision warfare requires such a heavy capital investment, and such precisely engineered technology, that most countries still cannot engage in truly precise warfare despite decades of opportunity to develop the means. Moreover, we have learned that the intimate picture of war that our high technology enables actually creates severe psychological stress on weapons operators — rather than creating a game-like distance, drone war actually causes PTSD for its pilots at a rate similar to ground troops, precisely because they have the ability to see the consequences of their missile strikes. Lastly, the argument about stability, baked into the panic over new weapons development, is fundamentally hollow.

For starters, the world is more stable, less violent, less in conflict, and less at war with itself than it has been in the last century. This is a difficult fact to process alongside the unprecedented rise in refugees and the horrifying conflict consuming Syria and Iraq, but that’s the point: the war is really confined to that small area. More germane to this topic, Syria did not spiral into an out of control bloodbath because of drones and precision weaponry — it was the low technology of the Assad regime’s military that has caused such horrendous destruction that half the country has depopulated. It is the low technology of IEDs, suicide vests, and sword-wielding death squads that create visceral horror in the civilians they brutalize.

Moreover the concerns over proliferation and destabilization with drones are difficult to square with the extreme difficulty of deploying these weapons. As Andrea Gilli and Mauro Gilli note in the Washington Post:

[M]ilitary drones are neither easy nor cheap to produce… U.S. technology development is outpacing the worldwide spread of military drones… and employing drones for military operations is extremely challenging.”

The moral panics about precision weaponry didn’t pan out, and it looks like the moral panic over drones won’t pan out either. At this point, you can take the arguments drone-phobes deploy and simply swap out the target analogy and see the latest version they’re working on because the arguments simply do not change over time, even though the predictions fail to come true. (The historian AJP Taylor complained, in the 1960s, that World War I was “war by timetable,” because timetables are apparently terrible things.)

There’s another problem with this mode of technophobia: it ignores more prosaic, but more likely consequences to relying on high technology. The U.S. routinely faces shortages of guided bombs because they are expensive and slow to manufacture; this is true of any high-technology weapon, including autonomous drones. In order to avoid the many pitfalls that a truly autonomous weapons would pose (such as firing on friendly forces), there is a steep development and manufacturing cost that will ultimately limit how many are ever built. Look at modern military strike aircraft, such as the F-35: they are so complicated, so expensive, and so hard to build, that the U.S. Air Force will never fly piloted fighter jets in the same numbers as they did even a few years ago. They just can’t afford it.

The same is true of autonomous drones. Contrary to the fear mongering about a robot Verdun (which, I mean really), the more likely outcome of any sustained war with a near-peer is the fairly rapid exhaustion of the high tech weapons and a reversion to lower-tech, and thus much more brutal, methods of killing the enemy. (The other possibility is a revival of the dreadnought dilemma, where a war asset is too valuable to actually risk in combat — there is an argument that the Gerald R. Ford-class carrier is too expensive to risk losing to battle.)

So while we all watch what the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons informal meeting of experts is going to say, especially as it’s flooded by well-funded advocates screaming about robots like they’re in that Sam Waterston commercial, it is worth keeping in mind precisely what it is: a pointless phobia about technology, being expressed as concern about war.

Because let’s be honest: if all of these advocates really cared about making war more moral, less deadly, and less impactful on the lives of civilians, they would be working to do things like curb small-arms manufacturing, which kills far more people than drones ever have. But they don’t, because it ultimately isn’t about really making war less horrible or more moral — it is about fear of new technology.

Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.